C heck out the lavender-related questions below if you’d like a bit more information pertaining to essential oils and buds from the lavender family.  Just click on the [+] button to open a discussion about each question.  If you happen to have a specific question that you believe is shared by many lavender enthusiasts, place feel free to send your suggestion to info@ravencroft.net.

How can I understand all the lavender-related terminology?

First off, an admission: YES, the word-salad created by all the common and “foreign”  lavender-related terms can seem jumbled and incomprehensible to many of us. Let’s sort it out,  starting with the basics. All the lavender-family plants we’re interested in are members of the same  botanical family or genus: Lavandula. [Pronunciation tip: la – van’ – doo – la. Place the accent  on the second syllable, sound every “a” as a soft “ah”, and say the word “do” for the “doo”  syllable. Sometimes, you may hear “djoo” on place of the “doo”.]

You can think of Lavandula as a superfamily name with many branches or clans, which are the  species and cross-species members. Here are some of the species that you may encounter:

Lavandula angustifolia – this one is very common, and often referred to as “English   lavender” or “true lavender”. Basically, if all you’re given is the word “lavender”,   this is the species that should come to mind.

Lavandula stoechas – fairly common group, frequently called “Spanish lavender”, used mainly for its ornamental value with showy pineapple-like flower stalks and colorful bunny-ears. They do have a scent, though not particularly pleasant.

Lavandula latifolia – important species characterized by its highly camphorous oil. An important progenitor of valuable cross-species varieties.

Lavandula lanata – known for attractive woolly, silver-grey foliage. Does not tolerate wet winters.

Lavandula dentata – unique species with distinctive rounded dentations of its leaves, making them appear “toothy”.

“Cross-breeding” among the various species has resulted in the establishment of many hybrid strains, some of which have caused loads of confusion among lavender enthusiasts. Here are two  of the common hybrids:

Lavandula x intermedia – extremely important and prominent hybrid, often referred to as “French lavender” or the useful term “lavandin”. Generally large plants thriving in Mediterranean climates, the lavandins tend to produce much larger amounts of essential oil than their L. angustifolia competitors. The prevalence and popularity of certain cultivars like “Grosso” have made its oil readily available and relatively inexpensive. In fact, many of us, when imagining the scent of “lavender”, will actually have the scent of Grosso oil in mind, due to unconscious conditioning by products that incorporate it as their principal “lavender fragrance”. In general, the scent of the lavandins tends to be more camporous, medicinal, and agrestic than the more complex oils of L. angustifolia plants.

Lavandula x chaytorae – having inherited the hardiness of L. angustifolia and the silvery-grey foliage of L. lanata, this hybrid is gradually gaining in popularity, both in the garden, and in the availability of its essential oil.

Please note that the listings above are not comprehensive, but they will take you a long way in  your appreciation of the “family of lavenders”. Bear in mind that every species and cross species of Lavandula has many “clan members” which are the individual cultivars whose names will often be used to identify their essential oils or buds. For example, one will frequently hear “Grosso oil” as an abbreviation for “the essential oil of Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’.  Common cultivars in the L. angustifolia group include ‘Maillette’, ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, ‘Royal  Velvet’, and hundreds more. Should you see an essential oil or bud product identified only by an unfamiliar cultivar name, you should inquire about which species or hybrid group the cultivar  belongs to, as that information will help set your expectations appropriately.

How do plants in the lavender family get their characteristic scents?

Many plants possess a complex biochemical machinery that allows them to make a  huge variety of fragrant compounds that accumulate in microscopic “oil glands” in various parts of the plant. A specific set of genes in each plant are activated to produce the enzymes that catalyze each step in the metabolic process of synthesizing every individual aroma molecule. Varying  amounts of hundreds of such aroma molecules go into the formulation of a given plant’s essential  oil.  

Here are some things to remember about essential oils from the lavender family: 

  • The essential oil within the “oil glands” is a complex mixture of hundred of different organic molecules. From a chemical standpoint, there is nothing “pure” about essential oils. 
  • Each type of molecule in the essential oil has its own unique fragrance, which may or may not  be pleasant in isolation.  
  • The various compounds have differing volatilities, so you should expect, at any given moment, that the most volatile compounds will be disproportionately represented in what you are able to smell. REMEMBER: we can only smell those molecules that have evaporated and entered the gaseous phase which can then be carried to our olfactory centers.  
  • Various parts of the lavender plant produce differing quantities of aroma compounds at progressive stages of the plant’s development.  

Taking in the beautiful scent of blooming lavender is, of course, a favorite way of appreciating these plants. It is important to realize that the scent of the fresh blooming flowers will always be different than the fragrance of the isolated essential oil, partly because the plant is able to control the release of  aroma molecules.  You are likely to get a more accurate sense of the oil by smelling some crushed buds, but even then you won’t get a complete impression of the oil’s complexity.  Regarding the isolated essential oil, here’s a friendly word of advice: remember that a small bottle of lavender essential oil represents aroma compounds pulled from millions of lavender buds. It fundamentally represents a highly concentrated, enormous quantity of fragrant molecules which occurs nowhere in nature. Cracking open a bottle and taking a direct “hit” right under your nose is an excellent way to evoke our inherent olfactory defensive mechanisms. Simply put, too much of  ANY odorant will be perceived as offensive or dangerous, inducing evasion behaviors. Think of  the all-too-common occurrence of people taking a big whiff from a bottle, and immediate  holding it away and saying, “Whew! it’s way too strong!” Rightly so, as their brains are warning them not to do that again. Even if one does contend with a “direct hit”, it’s virtually impossible to appreciate the true balance and combined attractiveness of the aroma compounds. On the other hand, it is exceptionally easy to turn the brain off to the aggressive assault of too many molecules on our olfactory centers, making repetitive short-term exposures to essential oils increasingly unreliable from a sensory perspective. So, word to the wise, don’t judge your lavender oils directly from their bottles (unless you’re content to be consistently wrong in your assessments.)  

Why do plants in the lavender family even have particular scents?

Like so many other biological peculiarities, the answer to this question revolves around — you guessed it — survival and reproduction. Lavender plants do have oils glands distributed throughout their structure, even in the roots. But the density of these glands varies between individual parts, as does the composition of the oils contained within the glands. Even long after the lavender bloom season, one can rub or crack a leaf and smell a fragrance vaguely reminiscent of lavender at the height of its bloom.

So, why bother with all the molecular gymnastics required to generate particular scents? It seems to boil down to repulsion and attraction. For most of the year, the plant puts out chemical warning signals to various critters, saying “Don’t eat my leaves, don’t chew on my branches, and don’t gnaw at my roots!” Basically, it warns herbivores that they’re not going to like the taste of this  plant. Come show time, the rapidly growing plant generates hundreds of green stalks that gradually develop colorful flower spikes. During this precarious time, the scent signals continue to warn, “You’d better go find something else to eat.”

Finally, the buds develop enough to open and send out their delicate little flowers. By then, the abundant oil glands inside the buds have built up generous stores of specific molecules which, upon release, call loudly to the pollinators, “I’m ready, take me now!” The tactic is obviously useful during seed production time (never mind that most of the hybrid strains have lost their ability to actually  produce a viable seed).

So, there you have it: the array of compounds in lavender-family essential oils serve primarily protective and reproductive-facilitation roles that are advantageous to the plant. It just so happens that these same mixtures of fragrant molecules have widespread appeal to us human bystanders.

Are all scents in the lavender family similar?

The short answer: to some degree, yes, but mostly no. Among the familiar cultivars within the lavender family, there are a few particularly prevalent aroma molecules present in the individual essential oils that create a generalized background fragrance of sweet, herbal lavender.  These particular molecules, while abundant, are not particularly strong odorants, and can be  easily overwhelmed but small concentrations of much stronger aroma molecules. Therein lies the  key to the incredible diversity of fragrances between various cultivars. The complex genetic  machinery controlling the required synthetic enzymes operates differently in each cultivar, resulting in variable proportions of each molecule from a long list of possible aroma chemicals in the oils. Small differences in these relative proportions can translate to distinct changes in the  overall odor profiles.  

The tendency toward diversity in the fragrance of oils from individual cultivars enriches the range of possibilities, but also works against the desire for consistency among the makers of  large-scale products that incorporate lavender-family oils. It is no accident that one sees high-volume cultivation of lavenders in specific parts of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean  region, along with communal distillation of harvested lavender at enormous scale. These practices aid in the production of large quantities of comparatively homogeneous essential oils with an acceptable degree of year-after-year consistency. When you purchase lavender or  lavandin oils from companies that import literal barrels of these oils from Europe and other foreign suppliers, your are getting what you might think of as “generic” versions. Such imported  products usually meet international standards geared toward consistency and safety (i.e. the  absence of harmful levels of specific components) — both being admirable attributes in the right situations. At the same time, these generics shy away from the exciting diversity of fragrances emanating from the wide array of lavender and lavandin cultivars.  The artisan producer has the opportunity to celebrate the individuality and unique character of each lavender cultivar.

Needless to say, it can be difficult to find high-quality essential oils and buds from small-scale growers, whose total product yield is minuscule compared to imported generic product volume.  Lavender Stalker undertakes the task of finding really “good stuff” and providing you with information about how to get your hands on it!

Why have humans been so interested in lavender scents?

Human exploitation of lavender’s attractive fragrance dates back thousands of years in the service of freshening clothing and stale rooms, repelling fleas and other insects, healing wounds, and managing insomnia, just to name a few examples.  Most traditional uses, understandably, derived from empiric observations about the benefits that seem to be linked to lavender.  With our modern grasp of chemistry and our access to analytical techniques that reveal the molecular spectrum of lavender oil components, we now have a scientific basis for many of these traditional applications.  For instance, certain compounds in lavender essential oil have reasonable efficacy as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, lending credence to the antiseptic properties of lavender that facilitate wound healing.  Just as certain components of lavender oil tend to repel herbivores, others serve as decent insect repellants.  Not least, the well-recognized anxiolytic properties of one of the most prominent lavender compounds, operating in the brain in a manner similar to benzodiazepines, makes for a pleasant bedtime sedative and sleep inducer.  As you can infer, human interests in lavender have gone far beyond admiration of its pleasant scent.

What external factors affect the lavender plant’s scent-making capabilities?

The genetic program governing lavender’s production of volatile molecules is, needless to say, hard-wired into each plant.  That said, we must remember that gene-activation processes are sensitive to innumerable influences on cellular functions.  Fairly obvious factors include the regulatory effects of daily light-dark cycles, and the relative duration of periods of light.  If you don’t already know, lavender-family members are hard-core sun lovers — the more, the merrier.  Ambient temperatures play a role, with heat accelerating growth and flower development.  Naturally, lavender needs water to grow, but it is not a fan of excess moisture around its roots.  There is a long-standing notion that water restriction, at least to a mild degree, can motivate lavender plants to move along with flower and seed production, and some feel that the quality of the essential may benefit under these stressed conditions.  Essential nutrients derived from the soil must be sufficiently available to support the complex biochemical machinery needed to synthesize all the component molecules comprising the essential oil.  Deficiencies of individual co-factors like magnesium or cobalt can limit the rate of some enzyme-mediated reactions within plant cells.  Also, as is the case for many herbs, the pH of the soil can help or hinder lavender’s growth and development.  While being fairly tolerant of a range of soil pH levels, lavender prefers a slightly alkaline soil, which is not very common in areas of lush vegetation.

Beyond the actual plants, what factors influence the quality of lavender-derived products?

What our lavender plants can generate for us stops the moment its stalks are separated from the mother plant.  The timing of harvest is a surprisingly important determinant of quality for both buds and essential oils.  The bud-maker will watch for sufficient development of color and scent, trying to avoid too much actual flowering (which increases the difficulty of producing a “clean enough” product for culinary use).  The oil-distiller will wait longer, hoping to optimize oil content and maturity over the sum total of his/her crop.  Once the stalks of lavender are harvested, processing begins, with all its potential missteps that can degrade product quality.

Bud-makers will attend to careful bundling (not too big!), drying (limit exposure to heat, wind, and light!), separating buds from stalks (not until optimally dry, and not too traumatically!), cleaning (minimize chaff and dried flower debris, and no bugs!),  and packaging/storing (check out Lavender Stalker’s “How to store” topic).  It’s exhausting just thinking about all the work required to get a small portion of fine buds into the hands of inventive cooks, bakers, chefs and bartenders!

Oil-distillers have their own set of “issues” to deal with: (1) When and how should the flower stalks be harvested?  (2) Should the stalks be distilled immediately or should they be wilted first, and for how long?  (3) What kind of still and condensing column should be used (copper, stainless steel, glass, other)?  (4) How hard should the steam distillation be pushed (temperature and pressure issues)?  (5) How should the oils and hydrosol (water phase) be collected and separated?  (6) When should the distillation be stopped?  (7) How should the oil be filtered and stored initially?  (8) What should be done to minimize oxidation and chemical deterioration?  (9) Should the oil be “aged” to give it time to smooth out (a well-known phenomenon with complex mixtures of organic compounds)?  And, finally, (10) how should the oil be bottled and held for sale?  With all these issues to consider and manage, it’s something of a miracle that small-scale lavender distillers are able to capture attractive and well-balanced oils from time to time, let alone consistently.

How should I appreciate the differences between bulk-market and artisanal oils and buds from lavender family members?

It’s all about scale.  The large-scale, bulk-market producers often rely on harvested lavender stalks from multiple growers, co-op style.  Huge quantities of stalks are subjected to indifferent but well-established processing, and whatever comes out at the terminal end is the generic product for that season.  For growers, the commitment is limited to harvesting and delivering as much mature lavender stalk as possible — payment on delivery, thank-you very much.  In contrast, the artisan producer sometimes has the growing and harvesting responsibilities to manage, on top of the bud or oil production processes.  Typically, a small-scale distiller or bud-maker handles loads of plant material in the range of a few gallons to a couple hundred gallons, which pales in comparison to the metric tons addressed by bulk-producers.  Furthermore, the artisan knows that the yields of culinary-grade buds or essential oil, from all the plant material they begin with, will be relatively small.  Consequently, they will pay close attention to the entire process of bud-preparation or distillation, hoping to optimize both yield and quality.  Operating at small-scale, the artisan will expect considerable variability from batch to batch, and their goal centers on doing the best they can with the plant material they have at hand.  Needless to say, operating at small scale is inherently more costly than massive-scale operations.  In contrast to the profit-orientation of bulk-producers, the artisan adds a big dose of respect and admiration of the plant, and a desire for technical mastery of the preparation or distillation processes, despite the burdens of small-scale productivity.  That dedication deserves our appreciation and should be rewarded accordingly!

How should I interpret the Lavender Stalker Relative Quality Index (RQI)?

Each sample of essential oil or culinary buds submitted to Lavender Stalker for evaluation is subjected to a consistent, detailed proprietary assessment.  Because the fragrance characteristics of samples change over time, it can take more than 24 hours to complete a single review. Based on the composite score a sample achieves during its review, the RQI is calculated, ranging from [-4] to [+4].  Any negative RQI indicates that weaknesses and flaws of the product outweigh any favorable qualities.  You won’t see any product with a negative RQI posted on Lavender Stalker simply put, you would not want to invest in such products.

Many bulk-market oils and buds will have an RQI in the 0.5 to 1.5 range.  While these can be serviceable products, they generally lack any outstanding quality that would make them special.  Lavender Stalker is really only interested in truly stand-out essential oils and culinary buds, with notable character and consistent performance.  Accordingly, only products that achieve an RQI of [+2] or higher will be posted on Lavender Stalker.You should infer that all such favorably rated products can boast a significantly higher-than-average level of quality, and they will often convey distinct characteristics that set them apart from run-of-the-mill competitors.  As a consumer, you should also infer that the higher the RQI, the more unique and uncommon the product, which naturally enhances their value.  Of course, the higher the RQI, the rarer the commodity.  Who knows if and when we’ll ever get our hands on an RQI [+4] product, but if we do, it will be truly spectacular!

How should I store my lavender essential oils and buds?

Recall that the fragrance from lavender-family buds and essential oil comes from volatile organic molecules that vaporize and stimulate our olfactory centers.  The hundreds of difference component molecules are able to interact and sometimes chemically react with one another.  They are also subject to universal chemical processes, particularly oxidation, which is facilitated by exposure to oxygen and the energy inherent in light and heat.  In order to retard oxidative deterioration of lavender-derived products, one should restrict air exchange by using tightly sealed containers, and limit light exposure by keeping your storage containers in dark places or covered in light-blocking materials (such as foil).  Many chemical reactions are slowed by dropping the temperature, so you may want to consider refrigeration and even freezing.  For essential oils, the inclusion of an antioxidant is practiced by some producers.

An additional concern for buds is humidity.  The biological materials that form bud casings can absorb water from the air.  If they become damp enough, fungal or bacterial growth can be supported, leading to various forms of mildew or rot.  Well-sealed containers kept in relatively dry environments will help preserve bud quality, and you might consider adding a food-grade desiccant pack to your containers if there’s no practical way to escape excess humidity.

Once I’ve obtained some good-quality lavender-family essential oil, what can I do with it?

Generally speaking, a high-quality lavender-family essential oil will be sold undiluted, unless otherwise specified by the producer.  The range of applications of a pure oil is broad, but we can simplify it on a conceptual basis:  

(1) Use it “straight-up”.  Normally you’d want to use a dropper to maintain control over the tiny amounts usually needed.  Placing essential oil in a diffuser and simply applying it to some fabric or a cotton pad can provide gentle fragrance in a small space or near your pillow at bedtime.  Direct application to the skin in small quantities is practiced by some people, with a small inherent risk of inducing allergies.  Direct oral consumption is not advised.  That said, it can be used in culinary applications, but dosing can be quite tricky.

(2) Add it to something.  Many commercial products containing large quantities of fat-like compounds are suitable for addition of nice lavender oil.  Examples include lotions, salves, shampoo, body scrubs, liquid soap (or bar soap bases), candle wax, etc.  The amount to use will depend on the intensity of fragrance desired, from very mild (in the 1% range) to strong (in the 4-5% range).

(3) Mix it with something.  Lavender-family essential oils are quite cooperative in mixtures with many other essential oils…the list of possibility is very long.  Experiment to create your own blend of oils!  Some general advice about using lavender-family essential oils: keep in mind that the effect of lavender fragrances should be gentle, and warmly embracing, but never assertive or pungent.  Watch your dosing!

Once I’ve obtained some good-quality lavender-family buds, what can I do with them?

Culinary opportunities abound for the use of lavender-family buds.  You just need to be attentive to the starting quality of your buds, and remember a few basics about how to incorporate them into your kitchen creations.  Here is a summary about how buds are frequently used:

(1) Incorporate whole buds into your recipe.  This approach will require you to think ahead about the end effect of bud color with regard to your visual expectations.  Sometimes, a visible bud with appealing color will be appropriate, but other times the bud color will make no real difference.  There can be a little “chewiness” to buds that may or may not be acceptable.  Whole buds will generally impart a gentle lavender effect that may not incorporate uniformly throughout a portion of your final product.  Common examples include cookies, cakes, shortbread, scones, etc.  Bear in mind that heating speeds up the release of fragrance molecules, so prolonged cooking or baking times will likely have an adverse effect on preservation of the most desirable volatile compounds contained in the buds.  Buds can easily be added to whole spice mixtures, such as the ubiquitous herbes de Provence.  Gradual adsorption of lavender fragrance molecules to culinary staples is another way of corralling lavender flavor, the classic example being lavender sugar.

(2) Incorporate ground buds into your recipe.  Well-dried lavender buds can easily be ground to a fine powdery texture, releasing a lot of fragrance.  A small coffee or spice grinder tends to work well.  The resulting powder will provide much greater immediacy of lavender fragrance, and is probably best used in unheated recipes or culinary products requiring very short heating times.  Ground bud is obviously easier to distribute in a recipe, but it is powerful, so you will have to be careful with dosing.

(3) Use extracted buds in your recipe.  Here the goal is to mobilize the scent molecules from the oil glands of the buds, and then use the resulting extract in your recipe.  Examples include preparation of infusions into cooking oils or butter (e.g. salad dressing, marinades, compound butters, etc), herbal extracts into vinegars, heated infusion into sugar-based syrups, and alcoholic extracts (such as vodka or gin) for use in cocktails, or in the production of bitters and concentrated “lavender extracts”.  Hot water steeping, otherwise known as making tea, works well, especially in combination with other herbs and tea leaves.

Some general advice about using lavender buds in culinary applications: The final lavender scent should be gentle, enough to be just-noticeable by the taster.  A heavy hand with lavender fragrance risks pungency and making foods or beverages seem “soapy”.  Give some attention to the relative potency of the buds you intend to use as it will influence the amount needed — some bud preparations can be quite powerful, and others almost impotent.  Furthermore, the fragrance profile of the buds may make them more suitable for sweet versus savory applications, sometimes both.  Experiment, but be careful and add gradually.  When in doubt, especially if you have overwhelmed your nose with lavender scent, ask a friendly person to smell and sample your creation, preferably before you over-dose it!